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Rolling stock

How sustainable rolling stock upgrades will drive net-zero for the rail industry

Steve McBride, managing director of Vivarail, discusses the important role of battery power in achieving net-zero for the rail industry.

In October 2021, the Railway Industry Association [RIA] issued its formal response to the UK Government’s net-zero strategy for the rail industry.

Under this announcement, David Clarke, technical director of the RIA, admitted that in order to achieve the pledged 2050 target, “action is needed now”, as the UK fails to see "any significant new electrification projects or major fleet orders of low carbon battery and hydrogen rolling stock".

Fast forward 12 months and the latest data from the Office of Rail and Road, reveals a 10.5% increase in the C02e emissions from diesel passenger trains during the period 2021-2022 compared to 2020-2021. Although the pandemic forced reduced train travel during the latter timeframe, this data still alerts us to the fact that the move to battery and/or hydrogen-powered trains remains slow.

This point is reinforced by the fact that the UK is still home to approximately 14,000 diesel passenger trains, equating to an estimated 30% of Britain’s fleet. While this percentage doesn’t seem huge, the task of replacing that number within the net-zero timeframe is certainly ambitious – particularly when you consider that the industry has set an additional target to remove all diesel-only trains from passenger service by 2040 in England and 2035 in Scotland.

That said, a clear argument is already building towards the time-efficient and cost-effective solution of ‘re-manufacturing’ existing stock with the technology required to achieve net-zero, over replacing all 14,000 units with new trains.

Virgin Hyperloop chief technology officer and co-founder Josh Giegel and director of passenger experience Sara Luchian

MaxBögl product manager Andreas Rau. Image: Max Bögl

Manufacturing compared to re-manufacturing

Ahead of COP26, Network Rail outlined four clear actions it was taking to reduce the impact of the UK rail industry on the environment. As part of this, the reduction of waste and the industry’s commitment to "reusing, repurposing or redeploying all surplus resources to embed circular economy thinking" was highlighted as fundamental to achieving net-zero.

To put it into additional context, the cost of a new train is typically in the region of £1.5m to £1.7m per car and with energy prices rising to unprecedented levels the cost is only likely to increase. Furthermore, the manufacturing process is likely to result in around 400 tonnes in C02e emissions for a 3-car unit.

Should the estimated 14,000 diesel trains currently in circulation be decommissioned and replaced with new rolling stock, a further five million tonnes of C02e emissions would be produced (compared to three million tonnes emitted for converting existing stock), undermining the industry’s zero emissions objective.

In comparison, upgrading or re-manufacturing existing rolling stock into battery or battery-hybrid equates to an all-round better value for money proposition, eliminating any surplus waste in both materials and energy – all while supporting the industry’s environmental targets; particularly when you consider a typical diesel train will emit a similar amount in carbon over a three-month period as that associated with converting existing rolling stock to battery power.

A recent and relevant example of this is the Class 321 ‘Renatus’ fleet, currently operating on the Greater Anglia network.

This proven and reliable fleet is an excellent fit in terms of characteristic, size, and availability for conversion to battery trains and on completion of the ‘upgrade’, the battery technology will be able to provide up to 20-30 miles of self-propulsion.

Although this is an electric train operating under the overhead wires the traction battery upgrade will allow operation on non-electrified or partial electrified routes thus reducing the reliance on diesel trains, reducing emissions, while improving air quality and delivering decarbonisation benefits to the local area.

The battery-powered upgrades to the Class 321 Renatus fleet is being led by Vivarail and Eversholt Rail and will not only be representative of the rolling stock upgrade process, but will also highlight the time, cost, and emission saving benefits over manufacturing new trains.

Trains fit for the future

According to The Rail Industry Decarbonisation Task Force, rail is already considered a low carbon transport mode by accounting for just 1.4% of the UK’s domestic transport emissions.

However, as increasing numbers of drivers switch from petrol or diesel to electric vehicles (EVs), the spotlight is likely to shift onto rail emissions.

For the sector to both achieve and benefit from net-zero, it needs to commit to not only upgrading its existing rolling stock, but to also explore other ways in which it can drive the sustainability agenda.

While traction technology, such as that built by Vivarail, enables the quick and cost-effective conversion of diesel to battery-powered trains – it only solves part of the sustainability challenge.

For battery-powered trains to drive net-zero and achieve other targets, such as the creation of sustainable stations, rail operating companies need to also invest in innovative battery storage solutions, which not only have the power to recharge trains and quickly – but can also offer a green alternative for EV charging ports at train stations.

If implemented UK-wide, not only will the rail industry represent a truly sustainable and circular economy, but rail itself will also become a more attractive mode of transport to travellers looking to cut their own personal carbon footprint as the country edges closer to its wider net-zero deadlines.

The rail industry has experienced both significant change and challenges over the last few years, with a prime example being the financial impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, as the industry unites in the pledge to achieve net-zero by 2050 (at the very latest), it’s important to consider the quickest, most cost-effective and energy-efficient way of achieving this, while still delivering trains truly fit for the future.

Upgrading existing rolling stock with battery power not only achieves this but ensures the rail industry becomes a truly circular economy – committed to reusing and remanufacturing existing materials while creating the real opportunity for emission-free travel UK-wide.

To be able to achieve this ahead of the 2050 deadline would not only be magical, but vital. More importantly, it’s possible, but only if – to echo the words of David Clarke – we act today.

For travel and tourism industry data, comment and analysis, visit GlobalData's Tourism Intelligence Centre.

Main image: Steve McBride, managing director of Vivarail.

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